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Asheville, NC Call Center Workers Try to Organize a Fiercely Anti-Union Company Through the IBEW

In Asheville, North Carolina, workers at Sitel’s call center are trying to organize a union through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) despite being located in the state with the lowest union population density in the United Sates and working for a company that is openly anti-union.

This unlikely and dramatic action stems from a petition that was signed by 57 workers, mostly women, about unfair conditions pertaining to restrooms. The workers complained that there were not enough restroom facilities to accommodate the 600 workers on site and that they were being unfairly disciplined for taking ‘too long’ of breaks when they were really just waiting in line.

The movement to unionize began after the petition made its rounds and an employee, Ken Ashworth, found an IBEW Membership Development Department website, developed by Region 5 Organizing Coordinator Bob Brock and Lead Organizer Willy Kniffen, for workers interested in organizing call centers. From the IBEW:

I had 30 years of experience as a manager in the trucking industry. I wasn’t anti-union, but I was on the other side of the fence. I was pro company. I never, ever thought I would be organizing a union. But when you see a situation where you work for someone who has 100 percent absolute control, organizing is the only thing you can do.

This was unwelcome news for Sitel which has gone out of its way to create a workplace that is unfriendly to unions. Their company handbook informs workers that they are employed “at will,” that Sitel is a “union-free” company and “desires to stay that way.” With their “union-free” language, Sitel basically treats unions the way other companies treat drug use. The handbook also contains a media clause that all workers sign and has been used to discipline workers who discuss company affairs on Facebook. When the IBEW helped file a complaint against Sitel with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the company became hostile against those organizing.

In an article titled, “Call Centers: The Sweat Shop of the Modern Era,” Daily Kos Labor writer Mark E. Andersen looked at what rights the NLRA grants the affected workers in Asheville:

Under the NLRA, you have the right to:

· Organize a union to negotiate with your employer concerning your wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.

· Form, join or assist a union.

· Bargain collectively through representatives of employees’ own choosing for a contract with your employer setting your wages, benefits, hours, and other working conditions.

· Discuss your wages and benefits and other terms and conditions of employment or union organizing with your co-workers or a union.

· Take action with one or more co-workers to improve your working conditions by, among other means, raising work-related complaints directly with your employer or with a government agency, and seeking help from a union.

· Strike and picket, depending on the purpose or means of the strike or the picketing.

· Choose not to do any of these activities, including joining or remaining a member of a union.


Under the NLRA, it is illegal for your employer to:

· Prohibit you from talking about or soliciting for a union during non-work time, such as before or after work or during break times; or from distributing union literature during non-work time, in non-work areas, such as parking lots or break rooms.

· Question you about your union support or activities in a manner that discourages you from engaging in that activity.

· Fire, demote, or transfer you, or reduce your hours or change your shift, or otherwise take adverse action against you, or threaten to take any of these actions, because you join or support a union, or because you engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection, or because you choose not to engage in any such activity.

· Threaten to close your workplace if workers choose a union to represent them.

· Promise or grant promotions, pay raises, or other benefits to discourage or encourage union support.

· Prohibit you from wearing union hats, buttons, t-shirts, and pins in the workplace except under special circumstances.

· Spy on or videotape peaceful union activities and gatherings or pretend to do so.

Sitel is going to fight unionization of their call center to the fullest extent and has already employed Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak and Stewart, P.C., as their legal team. The anti-union law firm has a lobbying arm which routinely opposes any reforms to U.S. labor law that would facilitate workers gaining a voice on the job.

Hiring a law firm with 600 attorneys and 40 offices across 23 states to battle workers who simply wanted more restrooms seems extreme, but companies like Sitel come to states like North Carolina specifically to exploit “Right-to-Work” in this manner.

To the uninformed, Sitel’s global reach may conjure fear of the company packing up and moving its operation to India at the first sign of unionization, leaving the Asheville workers jobless. Fortunately for them, though, recent Congressional action aims to prevent just that. A new bill is in the works that would punish companies that sent their call centers out of the country, making them ineligible to receive guaranteed federal loans for a five-year. The bill is being pushed by Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) and has the backing of the Communications Workers of America.

Read the entire IBEW piece HERE.


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